Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 22, 2009

Ball of Fame

With a little effort, you, too, can be a star.

Jake Rake

"I just want attention."
—Abraham J. Simpson

For better or for worse, it is currently easier to become famous than at any point in human history. (Save for the days of Adam & Eve, during which it was impossible not to be famous. For either one, literally 100% of Earth's population was aware of them—a thought which Bono, sitting in a air-conditioned tent in some impoverished African nation—is surely salivating over). For most of history, however, fame has been the exclusive province of those:

a) Very good at something (Isaac Newton, Benjamin Banneker, Hildegard De Bingen)
b) Very bad at something (Montezuma, Sir Walter Raleigh)
c) Very wealthy (Various Di Medicis, Antoinettes, and Hapsburgs)

Jamie Wilkinson. Photo by Vu Bui.
"Some want their work to be well known and respected…some want the attention on themselves."

Jamie Wilkinson. Photo by Vu Bui.

Nowadays, the exposure once granted only to the good, the bad, and the wealthy can be attained by anyone. Thanks to that wonderful interconnecting network that unites idiots and non-idiots from all corners of the globe, it has become abundantly clear that anyone who claims they don't want to be famous is lying. As Jamie Wilkinson, instructor of the Internet Famous course at the New School's Parsons School of Design, puts it: "Everyone craves attention of some kind, but people have different ways of directing it; some want their work to be well known and respected, [while] some want the attention on themselves." [You can hear Wilkinson talk about his work, alongside Julia Allison and Dan Meth, at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series on New York's Lower East Side on Thursday, April 23, at 8 p.m.]

It has become cliché to note that becoming famous these days requires little more than a modem and a pulse, but even those minimal conditions aren't necessary anymore, as the rise of blogs, video sharing, social networking, and other rapid communication means has produced scenarios in which people become famous simply by association. Paris Hilton, for example, is famous enough that an otherwise ordinary, bitchy man named Mario has a blogging career by simply co-opting her name and reporting on her exploits and those of her peers. Susan Boyle, the homely Scottish singer who shocked the world on Britain's Got Talent, was just the subject of a New York Times article not because of her entirely unanticipated performance, but due to the extreme extent to which videos of her performance had gone viral.

A developer at pioneering news vlog Rocketboom and cofounder of the Free Art and Technology Lab, an open-source tech and media developer, Wilkinson is an expert at the game of attention-getting. His work and sites like the Fame Game, a Pandora Radio-esque catalog of well-known people and institutions, are quantifying the concept of fame (as it is currently defined) using a variety of empirical metrics, including YouTube/MySpace/Facebook/et al hits, public click-tracking data services such as, and an ever-expanding toolkit of other measures. In many ways, this is not unlike the clinical approach to baseball scouting made famous by Billy Beane in Michael Lewis's seminal 2003 book, Moneyball.

The goal of his course, Wilkinson says, is for students "to gain a healthy understanding of how to market their work and themselves in every possible way online," as well as "study contemporary trends in internet culture—memes, net art, new technologies." Students create a product—be it music, videos, photographs, or even just their own personalities—and market it online utilizing the resources studied in class. Interaction is a constant theme, and students' sites are loaded with icons from Digg, Tumblr, Twitter, and the like, each encouraging visitors to spread the word. There are polls, message boards, and comment areas, as well. Blurring the line between audience and participant is a logical step for students of Internet Fame; in an age where TV shows are based on MySpace pages and YouTube sensations are given lucrative recording contracts, the quest to become famous for the sake of being famous makes for a salient education.

The research being compiled by Wilkinson and his contemporaries will be interesting, as the abstract notion of "fame" has long proved a difficult concept to quantify. Traditional fame-yardsticks such as Nielson and Q ratings have been rendered hopelessly out of date, drastically upended by the exactitude of the internet, perhaps the cruelest mistress of them all.

Related in Gelf

An interview with Robert Galinsky, dean of the New York Reality TV School

Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at

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Article by Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at

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